If you've ever played sports or participated in a school gym class, then you've probably been told a million times that you have to stretch before (and after) exercising or playing to keep yourself from getting hurt.
The truth is that experts don't exactly agree on whether stretching is good or bad, and that might be hard for anyone who's ever taken part in sports to believe. While it does have benefits, such as loosening and lengthening the muscles and increasing your range of motion, studies haven't shown a conclusive link between stretching and injury prevention. However, there are a few other benefits that can help an athlete reach peak performance. And if it can be helpful for athletes, it's especially key for those embarking on the grueling three-part sport competition that is the triathlon.
Triathlons are made up of three segments completed consecutively: swimming, cycling and running. Some triathlons are short -- lasting less than 2 hours -- but others can last up to 15 hours and cover more than 140 miles (225 kilometers). If you're training for a triathlon, you're training for some serious physical work no matter how much distance it covers. To help prepare your body for the trial ahead and to give yourself every possible chance of success, you might want to consider adding stretching to your regular training program.
So what is it about stretching that benefits aspiring triathletes and seasoned pros alike -- and what makes it worth the extra few minutes it keeps you from doing what you love? In this article, we'll look at some of the ways lengthening those muscles can enhance your performance in a triathlon and some of the areas of the body triathletes should focus on during their pre-workout routine. We'll even explain how it can help you make a comeback after an injury that keeps you out of the competition.
Whether you're looking for ways to train to compete in your first triathlon, or you're simply seeking ideas for improving your performance, read on to find out what stretching can do for you.
Importance of Stretch Training for Triathletes
In its most basic form, stretching lengthens the body's muscles and, over time, can increase your reach and range of motion. By range of motion, we mean the distance parts of your body can move and rotate before causing damage to the soft tissues, like muscles and tendons. If you stretch regularly, you'll notice you can move parts of your body farther and easier than you could when you first started. In other words, you're improving your flexibility.
Being flexible means the freedom to move without resistance or pain, and for an athlete that is an important asset -- especially if you're competing in an event where you have to use your muscles in a bunch of different ways.
As a result of increased flexibility, you'll have better coordination. The easier your body can move through a range of motions, the better your coordination becomes, which can improve your technique and form in all areas of a triathlon, from pedaling and kicking to your running stride.
Another benefit of stretching is increased muscle power. Power in your muscles comes from their contraction; since power is positively affected by the length of the muscle, increasing your muscle length increases the potential power produced by its contraction. In other words, longer muscles are more powerful.
Stretching can even help reduce muscle fatigue. Every muscle in the body has an opposing muscle, or a muscle that is opposite of it. When one muscle contracts, it exerts force on its opposing muscle. If a muscle is more flexible, then it experiences less strain when its opposite muscle contracts.
There are even benefits after you exercise, such as decreasing muscle soreness. Stretching increases blood circulation, which helps flush out the waste in the muscle produced by exercise, like excess lactic acid. In addition, post-exercise stretching can relax muscles that have been tensed through physical activity, and relax your mind after a strenuous workout.
Clearly the time it takes to do a few pre- and post-workout exercises is worth it. But what body parts should a triathlete focus on stretching, and what types of stretches should be done? On the next page, we'll explore how some of the stretching exercises used by athletes in other sports can benefit a training triathlete.
Triathlete Stretch Training Workouts
After a quick warm-up to get the blood flowing, stretching normally takes about 10 minutes (both before and after exercise). It should be slow and relaxed. As with most things, if you concentrate on doing it right, you'll reap the greatest benefits.
Because triathletes are athletes in three different sports, the exercises that benefit swimmers, cyclists and runners can be helpful for a triathlete.
Swimming is a full-body sport that uses a host of different muscle groups. Swimmers stretch their shoulder and arm muscles to improve the range of motion they have for their swimming stroke. And since all of the muscles in your body are connected, working the muscles in your back and sides can actually help to improve the range of motion in your shoulders. Focusing on the ankles can also be helpful for a swimmer because a greater range in ankle motion can lead to more efficient kicking.
A cyclist would focus primarily on the legs. Over time, the exertion and repetitive motion of regular cycling can actually lead to a loss of muscle flexibility, so it's important to counteract this by stretching the leg muscles [source: Burke]. Plus, like swimming, working on ankle flexibility can put more efficiency behind each pedal.
Runners, like cyclists, focus on the legs. The longer your leg muscles are, the longer your comfortable running stride can be. So elongating the calf muscles and hamstrings can help you cover a longer distance with each step.
There are two main categories of stretches: dynamic and static. Dynamic stretches involve motion and use the momentum of the body to perform the extension. These might include kicking, lunging, twisting the body and rotating the arms.
Static stretches, on the other hand, do not involve motion; instead, they involve holding the body in a fixed position for a few seconds. An example of a static stretch is reaching behind you to grab and hold your ankle (which pulls the hamstring).
Both types -- static and dynamic -- have their benefits, but studies show that dynamic stretching before competition is preferable because it increases blood flow and loosens up the muscles, while static stretching after competition is preferred because it's more relaxing and is a good cool-down exercise.
What happens if you get hurt while training for, or competing in, a triathlon? As it turns out, stretching can also help you recover when you've been injured. Read on to find out more.
Stretch Training for Injury Recovery
Stretching, especially static stretching, is a low-impact way to get your muscles moving without putting a lot of stress and pressure on them. As a result, it's often used as a tool in the recovery process after an injury.
One of the most important goals of post-injury rehabilitation is restoring movement to the injured body part by working on coordination, strength and flexibility. If you're injured, muscles can becoming tight and inflexible when they're not being used, so it's not a surprise that stretching can help get them back in commission after a time out.
Recovery stretching is usually slow and aims at elongating the muscle tissue and building strength and coordination gradually over time. It's not often recommended that you stretch within a week of the injury, since the body is trying to repair itself and, depending on the type of injury, it can simply cause further the damage.
A typical recovery regimen for a relatively minor ailment could begin as early as a week after the injury. This early stage might include slow, static stretches aimed at increasing blood flow to the affected area. After about two weeks, stretching might be more frequent and intensive, focusing on regaining flexibility, coordination and balance. After about five weeks, static and dynamic stretches might be used to increase strength in the neglected muscles.
Another benefit of stretching for recovery is that it can alert you to any movement-related problems you might have. Since it's a way to slowly get you moving again, it can sometimes be instrumental in alerting you to healing difficulties. Pain or an inability to move in certain ways, for example, might be a signal of other problems.
Still want to know more about triathlons, triathlon training or stretch exercises? The links on the next page will point you in the right direction.
- Atler, Michael J. "Science of Flexibility, Third Edition." Human Kinetics, 2004.
- Burke, Ed. "Serious Cycling." Human Kinetics, 2002.
- Frontera, Walter R. "Clinical Sports Medicine: Medical Management and Rehabilitation." Elsevier Health Sciences, 2007.
- Holland, Tom. "The 12-Week Triathlete: Train for a Triathlon in Just Three Months." Fair Winds, 2005.
- Holt, Laurence E., Thomas W. Pelham and Jason Holt. "Flexibility: A Concise Guide to Conditioning, Performance, Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation." Humana Press, 2008.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. "Stretching: Focus on Flexibility." Mayoclinic.com. Feb. 21, 2009. (Sept. 15, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stretching/HQ01447
- Pfitzinger, Pete and Scott Douglas. "Advanced Marathoning." Human Kinetics, 2009.
- Salo, Dave. "Complete Conditioning for Swimming." Human Kinetics, 2008.
- Scott, Dave and Liz Barrett. "Dave Scott's Triathlon Training." Simon and Schuster, 1986.
- Walker, Brad. "The Anatomy of Stretching." North Atlantic Books, 2007.